21 Grams Review
At the moment of our death, they say, we all lose 21 grams…is that the weight of our soul? Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature Amores Perros, set in Mexico City and filmed in Spanish, told three stories linked by an accident. 21 Grams, shot in English and set in an unnamed US city (filmed in Memphis), also centres on an accident. Paul Rivers (Sean Penn) is critically ill and needs a heart transplant. His wife Mary (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is determined to bear Paul’s child, by artificial insemination if needs be, though she has a secret of her own. Jack Jordan (Benicio Del Toro) has been in and out of prison since his teens, but armed by a faith in Jesus he is determined to go straight and influence others like him not to follow a life of crime. Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), grieving for the loss of her husband and children in a hit-and-run accident, turns to drink and drugs. For reasons I’ll come to, this film is very difficult to synopsise without giving away major plot elements, so all I will say is that the film connects the lives of these and other main characters in ways I’ll leave you to find out.
21 Grams is an absorbing, superbly-acted but very downbeat drama. If it were told in conventional linear fashion it would no doubt still work. But Iñárritu and scriptwriter Guillermo Arriaga disregard standard chronology for a structure that moves back and forward in time. This goes further than simple flashbacks or even flashforwards, but proceeds almost by free-association. This time of time sequence isn’t common in commercial cinema, but viewers of Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing and Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey will have a head start. (These films were no doubt influenced in their turn by some of Alain Resnais’s narrative experiments from the 1960s, in particular Muriel.) You either become engaged with this type of “antiplot” structure or you find it confusing, irritating and alienating. You certainly do need to pay attention during 21 Grams, and it takes a little time before the various fragments begin to come together in a storyline, but it’s well worth sticking with. In a way, the fragmentary structure makes the film more powerful, forcing us to pay attention to small details we might otherwise miss and to piece the story together like a jigsaw in our heads. A lot of weight is placed on the direction and Stephen Mirrione’s editing, but both are precisely right: we have all the information we need and the film avoids becoming incoherent. Iñárritu goes for the handheld, bleached look of Amores Perros, with occasional use of jump-cuts, but it’s clear he knows what he’s doing throughout.
Even if you can’t grasp everything first time round, the acting will pull you though. Sean Penn confirms that he may well be the finest living American actor, and Watts and Del Toro are just as good here. Together they make this film one that confirms its director’s talent and is a must-see for anyone who wants to see a truly adult drama. Expect to be put through the wringer. Hugely impressive and highly recommended.